Saturday’s good reading and listening for the weekend

Mar 20, 2021
March 4 Justice - no sign of the military

What people in other forums are saying about public policy

Australian politics

Australia slips on gender equality

Until 2013 Australia was travelling well on gender equality in comparison with other countries, but since then we have slipped badly. In fact Australia is one of few “developed” nations without targets for gender equality and measures of progress towards nationally agreed goals.

That is the main finding of Per Capita’s report Measure for Measure: Gender Equality in Australia.

On the ABC’s PM program, Per Capita’s CEO Emma Dawson, one of the report’s authors, discusses the report’s findings with Linda Mottram (10 minutes).  It seems that we have been basking in our early progress – leadership in women’s suffrage and the first country to have a sex discrimination act – but our performance has fallen off a cliff since 2013 when the Commonwealth systematically started to dismantle mechanisms that monitored and drove progress towards gender equality. In both the report and the interview there is frequent reference to 2013 as the turning point in public policy. Dawson diplomatically doesn’t mention that this was the year when Rudd pushed Gillard aside as Prime Minister, and when Tony Abbott was elected to begin his path of destruction.

Women understand how progress has stalled and reversed through experience. Men have come to understand it more slowly, and have been shocked by what they have learned about women’s experiences in the workplace. Contrary to the impression conveyed by Fran Kelly and some other journalists, Monday’s March 4 Justice was not only a women’s demonstration; many men, of all ages, turned up to show their solidarity as Australians who are outraged by gender discrimination and by injustices against victims of sexual assault.

Dawson refers to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report. On its main index we lie at position 44. Even countries with historical reputations for gender discrimination, such as Spain, Mexico, Ireland and the UK, rank well ahead of us. Australian women score well on educational attainment, but poorly on economic participation and political empowerment – differences confirming the presence of systemic gender-discrimination.

Whatever happened in Western Australia?

The polls were right: the election in Western Australia saw a massive Labor victory. So far there has been little commentary on the reasons for the outcome, but the day after the election the ABC’s Sunday Extra had a panel discussion Has the pandemic changed our notion of federalism?, with former State Premier Geoff Gallop, Karen Middleton of the Saturday Paper, and Robert Carling of the Centre for Independent Studies.

The consensus was that Labor’s success was due to the overwhelming popularity of the state’s tough stance on border control – a stance that riled Clive Palmer, Gladys Berejiklian and Scott Morrison—who still don’t seem to understand that people prioritise personal safety and convenience ahead of figures on economic scorecards and the profitability of airlines. Gallop also suggested that the Liberal Party may have some of its own problems, in particular a local push by hard-line social conservatives to exert more influence on the party.  They also discussed the power relationships in our federation and the operations of the so-called “National Cabinet”.

They only touched on the peculiarity of Labor’s huge majority, which Gallop described as “brittle”, reminding us of how Canada’s conservatives recovered from a similar wipe-out.

In fact, such is the nature of elections run in single-member electorates, (i.e. almost all of our lower-house elections), that it is theoretically possible for a party to win 100 per cent of the seats with just over 50 per cent of the vote. A state without any electorates with concentrations of Labor or Coalition voters would approach such a condition whereby all seats change together. In this case Labor came close to that situation: with 60 per cent of the vote it won 88 per cent of seats.

The Western Australian election has left the state without an effective opposition, and a problem for the premier who will have to deal with the unrealistic expectations of members who will probably not be re-elected in 2025.  In terms of democratic principles, because of our (dysfunctional) tradition of party loyalty, an overwhelming majority can result in some of the problems of a one-party state as Martin Drum of Notre Dame University warns.  And by the same arithmetic that delivers a massive majority for one party, a relatively small swing in a subsequent election can see an overwhelming majority in the opposite direction, making for policy instability.

To illustrate an alternative to single-member electorates, had Western Australia been voting as one multi-member electorate – that is with proportional representation – Labor would still have a working majority (35 seats in the 59 seat parliament), the Liberals would hold 13 seats – enough to fill shadow ministries – and the Greens would hold 4 seats.

The left-hand graph of the two graphs below show the contrast between the actual outcome (grey bars) and a proportional representation outcome. The other graph, which looks very similar, is a re-cast of the 2012 Queensland election, in which Labor was effectively wiped out and Campbell Newman, his confidence boosted by a huge majority, enacted a destructive far-right program of “reforms”. (With proportional representation he would have been one seat short of a majority.) Three years later, in a wipe-out for the LNP, Newman lost his own seat!

This is not to advocate a single-electorate proportional representation system for Western Australia or anywhere else in the Commonwealth – such arrangements have their own problems – but it is a suggestion that we should not consider our “Westminster” conventions as sacred. There are other models of parliamentary democracy – models that can encourage politicians of differing ideological persuasions to find common ground on important national issues.

Netherlands provides an example of proportional representation using the D’Hont method.  They had their national election this week. The biggest proportion of votes, and therefore the biggest proportion of seats, was won by Prime Minister Mark-Rutte’s centre-right party – around 36 seats in a 150 seat lower house. He will almost certainly govern in coalition with other centrist parties.

Western Australia’s election and the March 4 Justice – different messages for Morrison

Morrison would not be happy with the Liberals’ wipe-out in Western Australia but it’s a political event he can understand. He is skilled in the mechanics of elective politics, he knows that most voters distinguish between state and federal issues, he knows that parties’ support can change quickly, and he knows how to use the dark arts of marketing to manipulate public perceptions.

But the message delivered by the March 4 Justice rallies is different. “This is an arena in which Morrison is clearly uncomfortable, and prone to regular mistakes. He doesn’t get social movements at all because he is a political party animal”, writes John Warhurst in the Canberra Times: The marketing man has a tin ear on social change.

The Liberal Party has been infiltrated – by liberals

John Howard and his colleagues managed to purge the Liberal Party of so-called “moderates”.  The party that could once accommodate Russell Broadbent, Ian MacPhee, Judith Troeth, Peter Baume, Judi Moylan and Petro Georgiou, and elect Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop to its top parliamentary ranks, has been held hostage by misogynists, bigots, anti-intellectual reactionaries, and those who will do a deal with the devil to garner votes.

But Mike Stekatee, in an Inside Story article, suggests there are still sizeable groupings of “moderates” in the Liberal Party, a few hanging on within the federal parliamentary ranks, and a few more in state parliaments and party structures: The revolt of the Liberal moderates.

Stekatee mentions Matt Kean, the New South Wales Environment Minister whose stance on climate change has been in defiance of Morrison’s policies. Among those who have hung on in the federal parliamentary party he mentions Simon Birmingham and Marise Payne.

But is he not a little generous in including Birmingham and Payne in the same “moderate” category as Kean, who has actually done something? Beliefs, when not expressed openly, and when they do not influence action, are easy to hold. And worse, as has been illustrated by Mathias Cormann “coming out” on climate change, the meek compliance of so-called “moderates” adds to the public perception that politicians are morally gutless people, lacking any principles other than tribal loyalty in the hope that they will be rewarded with the trappings of office.

Come fly with me

When there is a deadly aerosol-transmitted virus raging around the world and occasionally breaking out in Australia, it is understandable that most sensible people are reluctant to jam themselves into tightly-packed metal tubes to travel. It’s little wonder that people have put off their travel plans, or have chosen to drive, or even take our leisurely and well-ventilated long-distance trains. All of these modes carry some benefits for otherwise seldom-visited country towns along the way.

But because the owners of the tubes – the airlines – have been missing out, our government, headed by a tourism marketing executive, has promised half-priced airfares to selected destinations.  Writing in The Conversation, Isaac Gross of Monash University provides a convenient map of destinations, that seem to coincide with marginal federal electorates.  Marginal advantage: a whiff of pork in the government’s great tourist ticket lottery. Those who are tempted to take up this offer would be well-advised to check out accommodation at the destinations, because some of them are already doing very well as people substitute domestic travel for overseas travel. Or if they simply suffer from an airplane fetish and miss the experience of being herded like sheep into a woolshed, they might care to take one of Qantas’s mystery flights.

If you are anywhere near Balmain on Thursday

Geoffrey Watson SC will be speaking in the Balmain Town Hall: Sleepwalking towards a cliff: Confidence in Government is shattered. How did this happen? How can we fix it? Why we need a National Integrity Commission at 19:00 on Thursday 25 March.  The event is sponsored by the Balmain Institute, with whom you should register if you wish to attend.


Private schools in Australia it’s not about who wins the game but who owns the oval

Accounts and allegations of sexual assault have brought the role of private schools to our attention in two contexts. One is the sense of entitlement which can develop in exclusive private schools, particularly among young men. The other is a sense of male togetherness, leading to misogyny, that sometimes arises in single-sex boys’ schools. These traits come together in bad behaviour among young men.

George Variyan of Monash University, writing in The Conversation, writes about his  research based on interviews with teachers in elite boys’ schools, confirming the behaviour revealed by ex-Sydney schoolgirl Chanel Contos. The behaviour they describe is disgusting.

As a major article in the Saturday Paper, Mike Seccombe writes that “the rarefied and entitled boys-only private school network has created massive imbalances and injustices in the halls of power, public policy and broader society”: The children of gods: how power works in Australia. These establishments are more about helping the children of the privileged to develop their networks, rather than providing anything special in education. (See the Schwartz Media website for access limits.)

Private schools in America

While in Australia about 30 per cent of children are in private schools, in the US only about 10 per cent of children go to private schools, and within this group – less than 2 per cent of the total – are children in “independent” schools that operate without government funding (other than tax breaks) and regulation.

Caitlin Flanegan, herself a former teacher at an independent school, writes in The Atlantic that Private schools have become truly obscene. These expensive independent schools prepare young people for entry into Ivy League universities such as Yale, Dartmouth and Princeton, who take around a quarter of their students from these schools.

She writes about parents who threaten teachers for “unfair” grading of their precious students, because low grades could jeopardise their chances of gaining admission into elite universities, and about the lack of support teachers and counsellors receive from the school administrators when parents complain. She tells a story of a situation in which rich people are competing intensely for a scarce resource – a resource that is probably over-valued anyway.  In the process children are put under immense pressure, and more generally, in a message that could have been written just as appropriately for Australia as for the US, she points out that society suffers:

In a just society, there wouldn’t be a need for these expensive schools, or for private wealth to subsidize something as fundamental as an education. We wouldn’t give rich kids and a tiny number of lottery winners an outstanding education while so many poor kids attend failing schools. In a just society, an education wouldn’t be a luxury item.

Government funding favours private schools

Between 2009-10 and 2018-19 government funding – state and Commonwealth – increased in real (inflation-adjusted) terms by $2614 per student in private schools, compared with $334 per student in public schools. Over that period Commonwealth funding favoured private schools, and the inequality was worsened by state governments increasing funding for private schools while actually cutting funds from public schools.

They are the headline figures from a research brief by Trevor Cobbold of Save our Schools: Private school funding increase is six times the public school increase. His paper gives detailed figures for each state. All governments, Labor and Coalition, have played their part in this inequitable funding reallocation.

Primary school – where values are formed

Year of the Rabbit Films has produced a 14-minute video about “Julian”, a 9-year-old boy in a grade 4 classroom in Australia in 1981. Julian tries to hold to his moral principles, but he finds no support – in fact punishment – from authority figures at the school. You can find it on SBS on demand, or if that is unavailable for some reason it is available from a German site – English dialogue, German subtitles.

Philistines in the academy

“Australia is well on its way to becoming the most philistine country in the West.”

That’s one of the more memorable quotes from Judith Brett’s essay The bin fire of the humanities, in the March edition of The Monthly.  (See the Schwartz Media website for access limits, or better, take a subscription.)  That essay contrasts her experience as a young student of literature and politics in the late 1960s with the current situation for students, particularly students of the humanities. She sees universities involved in two “morally compromised relationships” – one with underpaid casual staff, the other with students and their families who were promised a world-class education, who have paid for a world-class education, but have been provided with far less.

She provides context for her findings on last week’s Saturday Extra: Our universities, the humanities, our society (16 minutes).  Governments bear some of the blame for cutting funding, particularly cuts to the humanities. (In her essay she mentions Dawkins’ “reforms” of the 1980s and “the Liberal Party’s hostility to intellectuals”). Universities bear the brunt of the Coalition’s attacks on cultural institutions.

But universities themselves are also to blame because in a competition for prestige they have prioritised research over teaching, and have cross-subsidised research from student fees.

If any Pearls and Irritations readers believe that “research” involves contributing to humanity’s knowledge of the arts and sciences, they may be out of touch with present-day practices. In Australia most “research” is about the number of publications in supposedly peer-reviewed journals, in which ground-breaking academic work is buried alongside mediocre publications by over-worked academics battling to preserve their jobs and to obtain grants from the Australian Research Council. It’s all about performance metrics.

Our inflating asset bubbles


The ABS has produced its quarterly Residential Property Price Index for the December quarter, confirming that capital city house prices are once again on the way up.  Private surveys, on which we reported last week, suggest that the boom is continuing into this year.  Since a low point in mid 2019, the price of detached dwellings in our capital cities has risen by 11 per cent – 15 per cent in Sydney and 13 per cent in Melbourne, while apartment prices have risen a little more slowly. This has been over a period when wages have hardly risen.

Longer-term movements, adjusted for inflation, are shown in the graph below.

Last week Ken Dyer reminded us of the cargo-cult politics of property prices: Coalition governments shape policies to encourage people to take on more and more debt to finance rising property prices. He linked a recent Guardian article warning of the massive debts supporting property prices.

In spite of this resurgence in debt and property-price inflation, the Morrison Government is pressing ahead with a bill that would loosen requirements for financial institutions to lend responsibly, and contrary to the sound advice of the Hayne Commission into misconduct in the finance sector, would entrench the practice of mortgage brokers being financially rewarded for persuading people to commit to mortgages they cannot afford. See the work of a group of law academics published in The Conversation: There’s a bill before the Senate that would make it easier for banks to lend irresponsibly.

The share market

In the last few months, there has been a surge in share prices. They reached a record high in February 2020 (ASX All Ords 7230 on February 16), before falling sharply as investors and speculators realised that a pandemic had been spreading around the world and, as is their habit, they panicked. But since November last year, as companies started reporting their profits, shares have once again approached that record high (ASX All Ords 7109 on March 16), even though the economy is still far off recovery.

David Chau of the ABC , reporting on the views of financial experts, writes that the record-breaking market frenzy will come to an ‘abrupt halt’. There are many factors fuelling share market rises here and in other countries – FOMO (fear of missing out) as cashed-up naïve investors buy on momentum, pitifully low interest rates in secure cash accounts, and generally a global excess of liquidity driven by low interest rates.  As the economist Herbert Stein said of stock market booms, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop”.

What will stop in Australia is “JobKeeper”. Dominic Powell, writing in The Age, points out that a fifth of JobKeeper payments made to big listed companies in the second half of 2020 went to firms whose profits rose during the pandemic “Hit by a rainbow”: Fears millions wasted on JobKeeper payments to profitable companies.  Powell’s article lists a number of firms that have repaid excess JobKeeper funds, and some that have refused to do so, such as Harvey Norman.

Those who invest in the stock market, or who trust the task to others such as superannuation funds, should remember that capitalism is dynamic: the social media giants whose profits have driven up US share prices are starting to look like yesterday’s firms, writes Tom O’Reilly: The end of Silicon Valley as we know It?. He warns that “the inventions we most urgently need will take us in a very different direction than the consumer internet and social media revolution that is coming to an unsightly end”. Covid-19 has spawned an explosion of biomedical invention, which is taking place in a different milieu, and dealing with climate change will involve investments that are local and intensive in physical capital. Palo Alto may start to look like any other bayside suburb once again.

Other economic bits

Employment and GDP are up, but otherwise the economy isn’t looking too flash

Thursday saw the ABS release labour force data for February, revealing a strong recovery in employment and an even stronger recovery in hours worked.

In a speech to the Melbourne Business Analytics Conference, Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe has given a realistic assessment of Australia’s economic situation. Although GDP is approaching pre-pandemic levels, inflation and wages growth are both lower than the Reserve Bank would like to see, and “there is still a long way to go to get back to the level of investment before the pandemic, which itself was low by historical standards.”

Stop blaming renewable energy for coal’s problems

One thing can be said for the old Yallourn power station, due to close in 2028: it provides a local employment boost every time it breaks down.  Writing in The Conversation, Peter Martin deals with myths about coal-fired power stations – the idea that they provide dispatchable power (no, they take a long-time to ramp up), and that their closure leads to a jump in power prices (wrong again, based on evidence from South Australia).

Martin focuses on statements Angus Taylor gave in an interview when he said “if you have lots of intermittent energy coming in which you can’t rely on when the sun goes down, you’ve got to have that balance in the system with the dispatchable generation. Now, that can be gas. It can be pumped hydro. It can be coal”.  Is Taylor ignorant of the basic engineering of power generation?  He even managed to blame Texas’s problems on renewables, when the problem was that a huge amount of coal and gas generation was suddenly taken offline, while wind and nuclear generators kept operating.

South Australia came close to its own Texas experience last weekend, when authorities remotely switched off thousands of household panels in order to keep the grid stabilised.  The absurdity of the situation is that there was plenty of demand for electricity in the eastern states, but the circuits feeding the interconnector were shut down for maintenance.

Such absurdity and waste are inevitable so long as the Commonwealth fails to make the investments, particularly in long-distance transmission, that would bring states’ renewable capacities together, as outlined in the Australian Energy Market Operator’s Integrated System Plan. Australia has the tremendous advantage of renewable resources being available in different geographic zones, where there are different weather patterns, different timing of fronts, and significant time differences, but the Commonwealth seems determined  to spend scarce funds on subsidies to the fossil fuel industries instead.

The dark side

Where threats lie

Mike Burgess, Director-General of ASIO, has delivered the agency’s Annual Threat Assessment.  It’s partly an explanation of how ASIO works, demolishing a few myths and stereotypes about spying. It’s also an explanation of how those intent on doing harm have dealt with Covid-19 – which has provided an opportunity “to portray governments as oppressors, and globalisation, multiculturalism and democracy as flawed and failing”. Travel restrictions have made it harder for foreign spies and ideological extremists to move people around, but just like businesses challenged by such restrictions they have adapted through use of technology. “The online environment is a force multiplier for extremism; fertile ground for sharing ideology and spreading propaganda.”

He refers to the highly visible displays by Nazis and other far-right groups, but warns that “today’s ideological extremist is more likely to be motivated by a social or economic grievance than national socialism. More often than not, they are young, well-educated, articulate, and middle class—and not easily identified”.

QAnon – how did it arise, and where is it now?

One of QAnon’s consistent themes is about how Democrats and their supporters have run a child sex trafficking ring. Otherwise it offers a moving feast of conspiracy theories, about Obama seeking to form a close personal relationship with Kim Jong-Un, about Democrats suppressing knowledge about how to cure Covid-19, and of course about massive voter fraud.

Edward Tian, a computer science and journalism scholar at Princeton University, has put together a timeline of QAnon’s falsehoods and conspiracies for Bellingcat, dating back to October 2017 when QAnon first appeared on the not-so-public scene. It has gone surprisingly quiet since Trump’s downfall, leaving its disciples “adrift and confused”. Is it dead or just resting?

The pandemic’s progress


There have been outbreaks in Queensland and New South Wales, both reflecting a degree of lax administration as described by Catherine Bennett in The ConversationHow the latest COVID cases slipped through in NSW and Queensland — and what we can do better. In Queensland a medical practitioner who had not been vaccinated was treating a returned traveller with coronavirus; in New South Wales an infected hotel security guard who had received a first dose of vaccination was working at several different establishments – as permitted under the Berejiklian Government’s rules. (Protection takes about 12 days to take effect.)  Queensland has had to deal with an increasing of travellers from PNG.

As at Friday 240 000 doses of vaccine have been administered – still a little less than one per cent of the population. We are running significantly behind the Commonwealth’s promised schedule and are certainly not on track to meet the 4 million target for early April.

There have been supply delays, but Norman Swan points out that we have at least 1.3 million doses on hand. The problem seems to be the way the Commonwealth has chosen to distribute the vaccine through GP clinics. GPs already have heavy workloads, and therefore little capacity to take on extra work. The states have the infrastructure to carry out mass vaccination: he is perplexed that the Commonwealth hasn’t handed the task over to the states. “Give it to the states” he says on Thursday’s Coronacast. “They will open mass immunisation clinics, they will get organised, they’ve got the logistics chain, just give it to the states and you’ll get mass immunisation at your local hospital or your local football field, just get it done. Low-income countries can do this en masse, we should be able to do it”.  Even America seems to be doing it better than us.  The Commonwealth seems to have made a minor concession to this need, by adding a number of respiratory clinics to its list which is otherwise dominated by GP practices.

Swan generally steers clear of the politics of public health. The explanation for the Commonwealth’s choice probably lies in the fact that GPs operate under Medicare, a Commonwealth program. Like Boris Johnson, Morrison wants the Commonwealth to be associated with a successful program of vaccination, and he is undoubtedly peeved to find that state governments, particularly the Western Australian Government, has been able to claim credit for successfully suppressing the virus. It doesn’t matter if because of a slow rate of vaccination Australia’s opening to the rest of the world is delayed by several months, just so long as his government can claim credit.

Jennifer Doggett, writing in Croakey, sees the difficulty of delivering vaccination as a manifestation of underlying problems in health care – problems that will still be there when Covid-19 is eventually classified as a rare disease. Our various health care arrangements are fragmented: there is a “complete lack of coordination and integration across professional/jurisdictional/health care setting boundaries”: Will longstanding complaints about our fragmented health system now get a hearing?

Does the AstraZeneca vaccine really cause impotence/leprosy/halitosis?

Psychologists who study decision-making find that humans are bad at understanding risk.  We sort of know that a 1 in 5 chance of an adverse event is a riskier situation than a 1 in 100 chance, but when we’re dealing with risks of 1 in a million or so we become confused. We consistently overestimate, by huge factors, the probability of shark attacks, airplane crashes, and now adverse reactions from vaccines.

As at March 10 there had been 30 cases of thromboembolic events among almost 5 million people in EU countries vaccinated with AstraZeneca, and no events among 11 million people vaccinated in Britain.  Even if there were some causal relationship – researchers are fairly sure there isn’t one – that suggests a rate of 2 cases per million. The WHO and the European Medicines Agency have both said that the AstraZeneca vaccine should continue to be rolled out, a view endorsed by Australian health experts writing in The Conversation. The irony of the excess caution in some European countries is that thromboembolic disease is often one of the consequences of Covid-19 infections.

Putting these tiny rates into perspective, Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly reminds us that every year there are around 17 000 blood clot cases in Australia – that’s about 700 per million population.

Our Commonwealth health minister has a tough job in reassuring Australians of the safety of vaccines, a task made unnecessarily difficult by National Party member Matt Canavan and former Liberal Craig Kelly. But the underlying cause of his difficulty lies with the way, over many years, the Liberal Party has destroyed confidence in government. It has done secret deals with the National Party and Morrison himself has intervened to help Kelly gain preselection; it has ridiculed and belittled expert advice on climate change and water conservation; it has made use of people’s misunderstanding of probability to raise scare campaigns about refugee numbers and Islamic terrorism. The Liberal Party has spent down its reserves of credibility.

The UK and the US – failures by right-wing governments

In most of mainland Europe, particularly eastern Europe, the rate of infection is once again rising.  But in the US and the UK, infection rates have continued to fall, but they seem to be flattening out – at about 170 daily cases per million in the US, and 90 per million in the UK.  (To put these figures in perspective, Victoria’s short-lived peak last August was about 140 daily cases per million: by Australian standards the virus is still raging in both countries.)

The UK is making excellent progress with vaccination, however. As at March 15, 39 per cent of its populationhad been administered at least one dose of vaccination. This comes after a dreadful experience over 2020, when its death rate became close to the world’s highest.

Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland reviews a book by investigative journalists Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott on the Johnson Government’s handling of the pandemic: Failures of State: The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle with Coronavirus.  It’s a story not only of the way Johnson and his ministers lied and ignored warnings from public health experts, but also of bullying in health establishments and incompetent management in dealing with the virus’s victims, resulting in under-used resources and deaths that could have been avoided. And it’s a reminder that a policy of trying to “balance” health and “the economy” finishes up failing on both counts, while killing 125 000 people in the UK’s case.

Writing in The National Interest Graham Allison asks How many of America’s coronavirus deaths were unnecessary?, noting that more Americans have died of coronavirus than died in combat in WWI, WWII and the Vietnam War combined. When he uses more developed countries such as Singapore and Taiwan as comparisons, the answer is that nearly all deaths were avoidable. Even within the US there have been glaring differences in the way individual states have handled the pandemic.

Where is the pandemic headed?  We don’t know

Epidemiology is difficult.  There are established modelling processes such as Markov chain analysis, but they are complicated by changes in human behaviour brought about by the pandemic itself, changes in the virus, and further changes in behaviour brought about by people’s understanding, or misunderstanding, of expert and other opinion.

Writing in The AtlanticThe pandemic is ending – James Hamblin of the Yale School of Public Health describes the difficulties faced by experts such as Anthony Fauci in communicating with the public. The media demand neat predictions, while the experts have to walk a fine line between losing public credibility by pointing out the complexities and allowing the public to believe that the experts are making firm predictions.

Other coronavirus findings from our regular sources

See our separate web page of generally reliable information and analysis about Covid-19, including hyperlinks to those sources. The Economist has an article on vaccine passports: the issues are complex but they could help re-open the world.  On that page you will find a link to the ABC’s digital story innovation team’s site Tracking Australia’s COVID vaccine rollout numbers.

Polls and surveys

Electoral polling – tentative signs of movement

The media became very excited by movement in the latest Newspoll, with its TPP preference shifting from 50:50 last month to 52:48 this month in Labor’s favour. (Reported on William Bowe’s Poll Bludger)  Little should be read into month-to-month movements, but perhaps there is a trend: the latest result is well down from the Coalition’s 53:47 high point last August.  More significantly, Labor’s primary vote is 39 per cent, well up from 33 per cent in the 2019 election. The Coalition’s primary support is 39 per cent, compared with 41 per cent in the 2019 election and 42-44 per cent in recent Newspolls.

Essential’s poll has the usual questions on Morrison’s and Albanese’s ratings on approval and as preferred prime minister. Although approval ratings seem to be moving in Labor’s favour, as with the Newspoll Labor’s supporters shouldn’t get too excited.

The question on many people’s mind is “If the Labor-Coalition vote is around 50-50, why does Morrison have such a high lead as preferred prime minister?”

Polling expert Kevin Bonham gives some plausible explanations of the difference, pointing out that approval and voting intention are not the same. I might have a positive impression of the prime minister, but still intend to vote against the prime minister’s party.

That doesn’t mean Labor will have it easy in the next election. Bonham provides plenty of examples of opposition parties enjoying strong leads some time in the electoral cycle but going on to lose. A lead in the low 50s provides little assurance, and even a high lead can be wiped away by an event that plays in the government’s favour.

Essential’s other polling – Covid-19, trust, allegations of sexual assault, aged care levy

Besides its polls on political “leaders”, Essential’s two-weekly poll surveys a number of other issues:

Governments’ responses to Covid-19: all governments, federal and state, continue to rate well. Western Australia has hit 91 per cent, and Victoria, after a small dip, is back up to 62 per cent.

Uptake of a vaccine: The proportion of people who say they would get vaccinated as soon as possible was 56 per cent in August last year; it is now down to 47 per cent.

Trust in institutions: There is a jump in trust in state and territory governments. Among media the ABC retains a high ranking while trust in print media has slipped.

Sexual assault allegations: Only 16 percent see allegations of sexual assault against politicians and staffers as “just a Canberra insider story”; more than two thirds of those surveyed believe that “what is happening in Canberra is relevant to all women” and “it’s time women were believed when they say they have been assaulted”. On Morrison’s assertion that holding an independent inquiry would undermine the rule of law, people are divided roughly three ways between agreeing, disagreeing and taking neither view, but there are strong and predictable partisan differences. Nevertheless a majority – 55 per cent – believe there should be “an independent investigation to determine if the Attorney-General is a fit and proper person to be the nation’s first law officer.”

An aged care levy: People are similarly split three ways on an aged care levy, but more people (38 per cent) support a levy than oppose it (30 per cent). There is some partisan difference and there are strong (and predictable) differences according to respondents’ gender and age.

What to do after your vaccination

After receiving your vaccination you have to hang around for 15 or 30 minutes because of the (very slight) chance of a reaction that may require medical attention. In Australia you will probably have to sit in a GP’s waiting room with today’s Australian and a few old National Geographic magazines on a coffee table. But in most countries vaccination is a more communal event – even an occasion of solidarity and celebration. See how Yo-Yo Ma spent his time in a vaccination centre in Massachusetts.

See Michael West Media for more analysis of these and other economic and political issues, and watch out tomorrow, Sunday, for Peter Sainsbury’s Sunday environment round up.


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